Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Religion and Democracy in India

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Religion and Democracy in India

Article excerpt

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future Martha C. Nussbaum (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2007), 403 pages.

As anyone familiar with India can attest, Indians take great delight in describing India as the world's largest democracy. The subtext, it seems, is often a gentle reproach to the pretensions of Americans, who generally take their own country as in all respects the measure of successful democracy In her new book Martha Nussbaum shares this impulse to reverse American perspectives. Rather than seeking to export lessons gleaned from the great American experiment in democracy, she aims, in part, to cast reflected light on the shortcomings of American democracy by turning the attention of Americans to the trials facing democracy in India. India and the United States share more than democratic governments and large populations. Both countries were founded with the nation conceived not in terms of shared ethnicity, culture or religion, but in terms of shared allegiance to liberal ideals. With its profound linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, India faced an even greater challenge in establishing a pluralistic nation than did the United States.

India's extraordinary success can be measured by how resoundingly it has invalidated Churchill's famous remark that, "India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator." (1) In the last twenty-five years or so, however, the vision of India as a pluralistic nation has faced a potent challenge from a vivified religious nationalism. One recent result has been some of the worst communal violence since partition. In The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future, Nussbaum traces the sources (and fortunes) of religious nationalism in India and offers suggestions for sustaining the public culture of a pluralistic democracy

The focal point of The Clash Within is the horrifying event in Godhra in February 2002, where fifty-eight mostly Hindu kar sevaks (Hindu activists) burned to death in a railway car, and the ensuing mob violence throughout Gujurat in which at least 800, and maybe more, Muslims died. Nussbaum finds this episode instructive because it defies both the American stereotype of religious violence--in this instance Muslims are the victims, not the perpetrators, of religious violence--and Samuel Huntington's well-known "clash of civilizations" hypothesis--in this instance it is not militant Islam instigating conflict with the West, but rather Hindu nationalism with a European intellectual pedigree bent on violence against Muslims. If the case of India belies Huntington's thesis, Nussbaum argues, it is because the relevant clash is not between Islam and the West, but rather within "virtually all modern nations--between people who are prepared to live with others who are different...and those who seek the protection of homogeneity," and within "the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails." (2) What happened in the aftermath of the fire at Godhra is testimony to the stakes riding on the outcome of these nested clashes. It is an example "of the bad things that can occur when a leading political party bases its appeal on a religious nationalism wedded to ideas of ethnic homogeneity and purity.'3

Because the clash between religious nationalism and pluralism occurs between types of people and within every individual, Nussbaum dedicates much of her analysis of the Indian situation to the biographies and personalities of pertinent individuals. She includes a chapter recounting her interviews with prominent figures in the Hindu Right (K.K. Shastri, Devendra Swarup and Arun Shourie) and another chapter describing the lives and legacies of three central figures in the creation of modern independent India: Nobel Prize-winning writer and critic Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the independence movement and Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister. …

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